Happy International Women’s Day

This year, international women’s day falls on March 8. In honour of this significant day, we have chosen women from the blind and partially sighted community that have either shaped our lives in some form, or are admired by many. There are many women out there that we admire, but for the sake of brevity, we have chosen our top five in no particular order.

Linda Evans

Linda Evans was admired by many. Although I was not fortunate to meet her, her camp singalongs were a favourite . In fact, the Camp Bowen Society board of directors unanimously voted to rename music camp in her honour. This camp is now known as the “Linda Evans Memorial Music Camp.” Evans was quite instrumental in the launch of Camp Bowen’s music and band camp, and was always there to be a listener for many during her time working and volunteering at Camp Bowen. I was recently shown a video of a camp song, and there is no doubt that Evans had a lively voice and personality. Campers Clement Chou and Angell Lu-Lebel hold fond memories of Evans. Chou can still recall when he first met Evans, and how she was a major influence for his love of playing guitar. Lu-Lebel too remembers her first memories of Evans. Lu-Lebel was a child at the time and she remembers enjoying Evans playing her guitar and singing. Although it is saddening that this wonderful woman was taken too soon from this world on January 3rd, 2009, it is highly evident that she is deeply remembered and loved by many in the blindness community for her momentous contributions to Camp Bowen.

Outside of Camp Bowen, Evans was an avid paddler with the Eye of the Dragon dragon boat team, a rehabilitation instructor at the CNIB, and, most importantly, a loving friend to many who were fortunate enough to know her.

Mary Ellen Gabias

Marry Ellen Gabias
Photo Credit: Marry Ellen Gabias

Mary Ellen Gabias is not only a wife and a mother to four sighted children, but is also the current president of the Canadian Federation of the blind. She actively works on improving opportunities for blind Canadians, including more positive and effective blindness rehabilitation and training. Gabias also happens to be a board member of the American Action Fund and a national and international employment advisor for the blind. Before immigrating to Canada in 1989, Gabias served as Assistant Director of the Job Opportunities for the Blind project of the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, where she created and taught a career information curriculum to more than 2,000 program participants. She also worked for the State legislature of Illinois as an Assistant to the Speaker of the Illinois House. Since coming to Canada, she has served as the editor for a national magazine for blind people, titled The Blind Canadian, and is co-founder of the Canadian Federation of the Blind.

Elizabeth Lalonde

Elizabeth Lalonde, blind since birth, is a single mother to two teenage boys. She is also the founder of the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind (PTCB) and currently serves as the organization’s Executive Director. Lalonde has extensive personal and professional experience in the field of blindness and disability issues.

Elizabeth Lalonde
Photo Credit: PTCB

In 2010, Lalonde completed a nine-month intensive blindness immersion training program including Braille, travel with the long white cane, assistive technology, industrial arts, cooking, and other life skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana. This training centre is world-renowned for its positive approach to blindness, its problem-solving, or Structured-Discovery teaching method, and its promotion of complete independence for blind people. Lalonde’s dream has long been to bring the American model of positive blindness/Deafblindness rehabilitation to Canada. Prior to the founding of PTCB, there was no intensive, positive rehabilitation training program in the country.

Lalonde currently serves on the board of the Disability Alliance of BC, having joined in 2016. She has previously served as president of the Canadian Federation of the Blind for nine years and has been an advocate and mentor in the blindness and disability communities for over 25 years.

Lalonde earned a BA with a double major in writing and anthropology from the University of Victoria and worked for several years as a communications coordinator for the Province of British Columbia.

Lalonde has a positive, can-do attitude, and strongly believes in the importance of promoting a positive approach to disability and the abilities of all people with disabilities. Her work as an advocate in the blindness space has been covered by several media outlets, including: Focus Magazine (formerly Focus on Women Magazine), CBC Radio, CHEK TV, Times Colonist, Victoria News, and others. Gracie Jackson, who attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind with Elizabeth, once said: “In looking at your courage, your confidence and most of all your determination to make life better for people who are blind, I cannot tell you how honoured I am to know you. May you eternally be blessed in all that you do and those who assist you to continue to “change what it means to be blind.”

Lalonde previously worked as a volunteer at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) teaching Braille, and worked with blind adults to become employed.

Lalonde is an alumna of Camp Bowen, having attended camps on Bowen Island for five years. It was at Camp Bowen that she met Linda Evans and Shawn Marsolais, two of the other women on this list.

I had the opportunity to attend the centre Elizabeth founded in 2019 and I can honestly say I have picked up skills that I continue to use in my daily life. Before attending the training centre, I had only been exposed to one method of teaching blind students. I was able to learn how to cook and bake after being pulled out of cooking class in middle school. I also gained a lot of confidence when I was traveling independently on a regular basis.

Amber Thomas

At just 9 years old, Amber Thomas, who was born in Alberta, developed a brain tumour, leaving her with a visual impairment. Thomas however did not let this stop her from achieving her dream of continuing with sports, and at 19 was the first blind woman to swim across the English channel. After adjusting to her blindness, Thomas learnt to swim again before she learnt how to navigate on land. Thomas and her family felt as if so much had already been taken from her, and they were determined that swimming would not be stolen as well. Thomas participated in the 2012 London Paralympics, where she entered six categories and won two metals. Swimming isn’t the only thing that Thomas enjoys. She also rides horses and skis.

Shawn Marsolais

Shawn Marsolais
Photo Credit: Blind Beginnings

Shawn Marsolais is a mother to a 7 year-old and is happily married. She is also the founder and executive director of the non-profit Blind Beginnings, whose mission is to help blind or partially sighted children, youth, and their families achieve their full potential. Marsolais envisions a world where seeing things differently can inspire limitless possibilities. Marsolais always says that often, when one has a disability, their limits are decided for them by society. Instead of this, Marsolais and Blind Beginnings operate on the “no limits” Philosophy, as it allows each blind child and youth to choose their own limits regardless of their disability.

Marsolais spent some time at Camp Bowen as a camper in her teens and later as a camp coordinator. In addition, Marsolais was a Paralympic athlete.

I am grateful to know Marsolais herself and work along side her. She has taught me that I am capable of many things such as when we completed the Do the Grind Blind challenge and Flashmob. She has also taught me how to be a true leader as I am currently serving my fourth term as the youth rep on the Blind Beginnings board of directors in addition to my role at Camp Bowen. However; most importantly she has taught me that I am just an ordinary human. Someone who is able to pursue their academic and career goals and live an autonomous lifestyle no matter the misconceptions society may hold about my blindness.

These are just a few of the amazing women in the Blindness community who are actively working to create change within our world. To find out more about each of these incredible women, visit the links embedded in the web version of this post.

Editor’s Note: The teams at Camp Bowen and PTCB would like to thank the amazing women among our donors, staff, volunteers, and those who support us in so many other ways. We couldn’t do the work we do without you. Thank you!

With contributions by Alex Jurgensen.